Sunday, November 11, 2007

Conservation in the Cumberland Plateau

Over 127,000 acres of the northern Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee entered into conservation status last week when Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen signed documents preserving the land for public use. The $135M cost was funded by a public-private partnership between the State of Tennesee ($82M from the State’s surplus revenue fund), the Nature Conservancy ($13M), and Conservation Forestry, LLC and Lyme Timbers companies ($40M). The complex deal includes State-purchased land, as well as the purchase of timber easements that allow the State to enforce sustainable forest management practices, conservation easements purchased by the Nature Conservancy to prevent development of some privately held land, and long-term acquisition plans for other properties. The announcement prompted some thoughts about how might translate to our understanding of cities.

First, innovation is a key element in our ability to address issues, whether it is stimulating economic growth, confronting "wicked" urban problems, or preserving our environment. The Cumberland Plateau's public-private partnership was an innovative first-step in preserving a complex eco-system that neither the State nor the Nature Conservancy could accomplish single-handedly. Do we demand the same level of innovation from the public sector as we seek from the private sector? What are the challenges presented by public-private partnerships and what level of understanding do we have of those challenges?

Second, our perspectives about sustainable urban growth should encompass non-urban areas. While we are conscious of the negative effects of sprawl and pollution, we also have to consider the effects of our urban growth on those areas that provide the resources necessary for growth. Central city revitalization is not just good for the city itself, but it also helps conserve resources and protect environments in other areas. How effectively do we connect urban growth issues to concepts of conservation and preservation of natural resources located far away from urban areas?

Finally, it seems that there is a question of which government entity should be responsible for establishing and managing conservations areas. The public benefits derived from conservation areas cannot be confined to political boundaries such as states; however, as we see in the Cumberland Plateau conservation area, $82 million of state surplus funds were invested in just the initial stages of establishing the conservation areas. Should the federal government have played the role of public partner in this instance?

Conservation, preservation and other elements of sustainability will most likely gain in popularity and importance due to increasing concern for the environment. It seems that urban scholars need to be aware of, and interact with, the non-urban environment through a variety of channels in order to advance their understanding of and ability to develop sustainable urban spaces.

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